Elephants and Tea - December 2019 - 25

SELF-ADVOCATES

Dear Cancer,
You really screwed things up for me. I thought
I was happy. I thought life was good. Before my
diagnosis, I had probably the best year of my life.
I had finished my freshman year of college and
truly felt like I belonged somewhere.
And then, you came.
You wreaked havoc on me in every way possible. You caused friends to disappear, friends
I thought would stay through anything, but
here I am, a year later, without them. I lost
hope in the world and forgot all the good
there can be, because all I saw for six months
was the bad. I got chemo every other week,
leaving me nauseous and fatigued because of
you. "Why me?" I asked myself. What did I do
for this to happen?
Once I reached remission, you wreaked
havoc on my mind, forcing me to deal with
survivor's guilt and the mental pain of such
an experience. I wallowed in the suffering I
had just undertaken, unsure of how to proceed
after something so heartbreakingly different
from what my life used to be.
I didn't know how to be a 20-year-old cancer
survivor. I didn't know how to relate to other
people my age anymore; how could anyone ever
understand what I'd been through? I struggled
through going back to school, hoping to feel
normal, and finally realized that might never
happen again. I was faced with the relentless
task of creating this "new normal," amidst
those who proceeded with life as usual. How
could everything seem the same, yet so different, all at the same time? I felt safe in the life
I had; I was healthy, I was content. Or was I?
Is ignorance really bliss? How had I lived my
life at all before cancer, oblivious to the true
level of the suffering of others?
Cancer, you may have given me some good.
As much as I hate to admit it and really don't
want to be that person who is grateful for their
cancer and wouldn't go back and change a
thing, I know one thing; I've grown immensely.
And I'm still growing.
Nine months out of treatment, and my world
hasn't stopped spinning. I'm asking big questions, questions about life that no one really has
the answers to. Leaving behind the naivety, I
have a clearer view of the world and the hurting
that exists; but I must remember the good: the
people who wrote me stories, crafted poems,
made me chain link decorations, sent me gifts,
and let me know I am loved. For every person
that left me, there's one who came out of the

woodwork and proved that they cared. They
spent time painting quotes from my favorite
musicals for me, or asked friends of friends to
write me encouraging notes, even though they
had never met me.
I've discovered so much more about myself:
who I am and how I love. Sharing time and getting a cup of coffee with a new or old friend and
just pouring out all of your feelings and getting
to know one another is the way to my heart.
After cancer, I've come to cherish getting to
know who I am. Maybe it takes being stripped
down to almost nothing and rebuilding from
there to truly become oneself.
In my mind, there's nothing better than a
good, authentic, heart to heart. I had one the
other day: the first one I've ever had in person
with another AYA survivor. After four hours
together, I still could have spent the rest of
the day with her. The community that cancer
has taken from me cannot compare to the
community that I have gained through mentors and friends whom I connect with on the
deepest level after being affected by the same
awful disease.
Sweet Kaylee and I met for coffee and clicked
immediately; we each shared our stories, my
struggle with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, her struggle with ovarian cancer, and the conversation
flowed so readily. It was one of those storybook moments where you know, no matter
how long or short the friendship lasts, this
is someone who will impact your life in the
long term in such a powerful way. Sometimes
I have to remind myself of the friendships I
have made through cancer; I've always longed
for authenticity, and it turns out, cancer was
the road to it. I've had truer, loving, understanding conversations in my time during and
after treatment than I have had in my whole
life before cancer. Those conversations have
become a core part of who I am, and I cannot
imagine myself without the purpose that those
connections give me.
One of my biggest fears is that when people
look at me, is that all they will see is the cancer.
I want to be more than the cancer. Simultaneously advocating for those going through
cancer while still not wanting that to define me
has proven to be a hard line to walk as a young
cancer survivor. It may be a big part of my life
and my story, but it will NOT be all of it. It has
changed so much of my life and outlook that
it's hard for me to realize that I truly am more
than the cancer. Yes, it has taught me so much,
all the while giving me the worst six months of

Dear Cancer...

my life. How do I tell someone new that I meet
that I've been through cancer? Should I? Will it
come up naturally? This is one of the ways my
battle with cancer plagues me on a daily basis.
However, without you, cancer, I couldn't
have had so many moments. I still hate you
for doing this to countless people, taking
loved ones, and ripping normalcy from so
many. But without the bad, how can there be
good? To have someone who can support you
through your hardest days, you have to have
those hard days. To connect emotionally with
someone through mutual sobbing tears, you
have to be able to cry. To learn and grow, you
must start somewhere. At 20, I have seen things
that most people my age have not, and I have
been through trials others rarely see so young.
I'm not going to thank you, cancer. Because
I'm not quite there yet. I'm still angry and
dealing with the hurt you have caused me and
those I love. Grieving my old, pre-cancer life
is a process, one that I'm still in the middle of.
You'll be there, hanging over my head for the
rest of my life. I'll have scans and tests regularly
and know that I am at risk for a lot of other
things now too. These are things I shouldn't
have to worry about as young college student.
So let me grieve. And leave me alone to do so.
To my fellow cancer survivors: it is okay to
grieve, even if you're no longer facing death.
Cancer still knocked on your door. And you
still had to answer. But you did it. Or you're
doing it. And it hurts like hell. It rips your life
apart and leaves you with shattered pieces.
But beautiful things can be remade, and they
can turn out even more spectacular than they
were before.
Sincerely,
R AC H E L M I H A L KO

ELEPHANTSANDTEA.COM
DECEMBER 2019

25


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Elephants and Tea - December 2019

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Elephants and Tea - December 2019

Contents
Elephants and Tea - December 2019 - Cover1
Elephants and Tea - December 2019 - Cover2
Elephants and Tea - December 2019 - 1
Elephants and Tea - December 2019 - Contents
Elephants and Tea - December 2019 - 3
Elephants and Tea - December 2019 - 4
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Elephants and Tea - December 2019 - Cover3
Elephants and Tea - December 2019 - Cover4
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